Iraq is to host an Arab summit on March 29, the first since the Arab Spring that swept away several dictators and brought Islamists to the fore, a senior Arab League official said on Wednesday.
The last time Baghdad hosted a regular summit of the 22-member organisation dates back to November 1978, and Iraq was the venue for an extraordinary session in May 1990, just months before Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
“We’ve agreed on all the logistical and security arrangements,” the Arab League’s assistant secretary general, Ahmed ben Hilli, announced at a joint press conference in Baghdad with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
“Arab economy ministers will meet on March 27, foreign ministers on the 28th and heads of state on March 29” for a regular summit, ben Hilli said.
“The agenda of this summit will be different from previous ones because it will be more open and should be closer to Arab citizens,” he said, underlining the dramatic changes in the region.
Zebari said that Iraq, which is to host the event in its fortified Green Zone of downtown Baghdad, would “do everything to assure the security of the delegations and heads of Arab states.”
The announcement came as official figures showed 151 Iraqis were killed in attacks in January, the month after Washington ended a military deployment of more than eight years. It was one of the lowest monthly death tolls since 2003.
A regular Arab summit was originally due to be held on March 29, 2011 in the Iraqi capital but delayed due to the turbulence of the Arab Spring that last year ousted long-term rulers of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
It was rescheduled until May 11 before being postponed for a second time.
Saddam, toppled in a 2003 US-led invasion and executed in 2006, Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi, killed last year, and Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia in January 2011, will be notable absentees.
Egypt’s longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak, forced to step down as president last February 11, and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has signed an accord to hand over power to his deputy later this month, will also be missing.
And the Cairo-based League, which in November suspended Syria because of its deadly crackdown on dissent, is seeking UN backing for its plan for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
The Arab states of the Gulf, which have been among the fiercest critics of the Assad regime, last November also blocked a Syrian request for an emergency Arab summit on the crisis in the country.
In the absence of the Arab Spring-deposed autocratic rulers, the Islamists who have come to the fore in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia will be making their summit debut, to sit alongside the monarchs of the Gulf, Jordan and Morocco.
Baghdad itself will be presented by new faces, with a Shiite-led and Kurdish-backed government taking centre stage in the place of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime.
The sectarian faultline across the Arab world has never been so pronounced.
“We are heading for a great Sunni-Shiite divide that stretches from Iraq to Lebanon and passes through Syria,” Joseph Bahout, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and a Middle East specialist, told AFP last week.
“The three countries will become a front line that will see conflict between the two main communal forces (Sunni and Shiite) in the region,” he forecast.
But next month’s summit also marks the return of Iraq after two decades of marginalisation since its invasion of Kuwait, followed by UN sanctions and the March 2003 invasion.
“Following the US withdrawal, Iraq will now be able to regain its role both on the Arab and international fronts,” said ben Hilli.